Still the Enemy Within | reviews, news & interviews
Still the Enemy Within
Still the Enemy Within
Intimate and moving documentary shows the Miners' Strike's human cost
You expect the tears, anger and pride, as NUM veterans relive Britain’s defining industrial dispute, 30 years later. The bafflement of a South Welsh ex-miner is more telling; the way his voice slows in disbelief at the level of violence the British state unleashed in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and incomprehension as he still struggles to grasp how and why what he saw could have happened. Two miners died during the strike, as did a cabbie taking one to cross a picket line, and three children sifting the coalfields for scraps to survive on. Light casualties, really, for a strike Margaret Thatcher’s government treated as a war. Director Owen Gower’s documentary doesn’t talk to politicians, instead trusting fresh witnesses, photos and footage to explain how it felt to be on the front line of the beaten side.
This is a more cinematic film than Ken Loach’s similarly unfashionable, dogged defence of the Welfare State, The Spirit of ’45, made by a director too young to remember the strike. There are a few unnecessary dramatisations, and animated enhancements of photos. These drop away as the story darkens and tightens its grip.
Gower begins in the scrubland above what was once Frickley pit, as ex-miner Paul Symonds describes the rapid plunge into pitch-black with which every day began for the tough, proud men whose union had brought down Ted Heath's government. The Ridley Plan, designed before Thatcher's election much as the Neocons plotted the Iraq invasion pre-9/11, set down in detail how another NUM strike could be provoked and crushed, allowing weaker unions’ defeat and an untrammelled free market. Glimpses of this document’s pages in the film make David Peace’s great paranoid novel of the strike, GB84, feel all too true.
The euphoria of the strike’s early days is one of the many pleasurable memories in a film that’s often funny, too. If you’ve enjoyed Pride, then here’s Mike Jackson of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, welling up as he remembers the applause he got at a miners’ meeting. Having grown up an outsider, it felt like “coming home”. Women famously joined the picket lines. Transformed from wives to respected activists, they helped to hold besieged, starving communities together. As with Blitz veterans, there’s nostalgia at the communal purpose.
Still the Enemy Within is at its strongest remembering the Battle of Orgreave, a brutal police cavalry charge in a sunny Yorkshire field the BBC shamefully reversed the footage of on that evening’s news, and the subsequent occupation of pit villages by politicised police from far-distant forces. The testimonies and footage here of mass harassment and intimidation show a secret, one-sided war on Britons cut off from the rest of an oblivious nation. Whether or not you remember the strike, or agree with it, this makes you feel the grimness of its last months, described here as “messy, and heartbreaking”.
Gower and his witnesses are very clear that this is a history lesson we’re still living in. Zero-hour contracts, demonization of the poor and unions as the rich get constantly, distantly richer: seeing the anarchy we’ve inherited after watching this important, moving film, you may wonder who the enemy within really was.
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